WKYT | Lexington, Kentucky | News

Families Mark Crash Anniversary By Giving Back

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Two years removed from the deadliest American plane crash since 2001, family members of the 49 people killed aboard Comair 5191 are preparing to mark the anniversary through both private grief and public gratitude.

Many of those whose loved ones were lost are focusing their energy this year on thanking the Kentucky community, which they say helped them deal with the crisis in the days following the Aug. 27, 2006, crash at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport.

"I feel so blessed that so many people of the community are remembering the victims of this plane crash," said Lois Turner, whose husband, Larry, was among those killed. "It is so comforting. People every day tell me they have not forgotten, that they still remember. That's a real blessing."

While most of these families were strangers to one another before the crash, tragedy has created a close bond and they still communicate regularly through e-mail and phone calls. Turner said there was widespread agreement that this anniversary should focus not just on the inevitable mourning but also on finding ways to give back to the people who helped them through the biggest tragedy of their lives.

Last weekend, the Turner family set up a produce booth at a Lexington farmer's market and encouraged shoppers to buy extra vegetables to donate to a charity for the homeless. Such causes always interested Larry Turner, a former associate dean at the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture.

Other family members have chosen their own charitable way to mark the days leading up to the second anniversary of the crash. Kevin Fahey, whose son, Thomas, was killed, called it "just a marvelous idea."

Thanking the Lexington community also will be a major theme of a public memorial service planned for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Mitchell Fine Arts Center at Transylvania University. Hundreds showed up for last year's memorial service, which focused largely on the first responders - including the officers who rescued the lone survivor, co-pilot James Polehinke, from the charred cockpit.

Fahey, who lives in Kansas, attended last year's service but plans to stay home and mourn privately with his family this year.

"We've got to come to grips with things here," he said. "We'll be together with family, extended family, close friends. We'll honor Thomas' memory and remember those that were lost with him, share fond memories and good stories."

The Comair jet tried to take off from an unlit, general aviation runway that was too short for commercial planes. It clipped trees and a perimeter fence before crashing into a farm adjacent to the airport.

"The thoughts of the entire Comair team join those in the Lexington community - and beyond - as we all continue on our personal journeys to heal," Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said.

Earlier this month, Comair settled nearly all passenger lawsuits stemming from the crash, averting a Kentucky trial that could have overlapped the anniversary.

The airline has acknowledged responsibility for the accident but has sued the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs the Lexington control tower, and Lexington's airport, arguing they should have to help pay some of the legal bills.

FAA and Comair are in settlement negotiations, and the Kentucky Supreme Court recently heard arguments on whether the airport can be sued as a branch of Lexington's government.

Deborah Hersman was the National Transportation Safety Board member dispatched to Lexington to investigate the crash. Hersman, whose husband is from the area, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the outpouring of support across the community remains with her today.

"Lexington really distinguished itself as a community," Hersman said. "It's a type of response we don't always see at other accident scenes. People everywhere - on the streets, in restaurants, in their churches and neighborhoods, everyone was affected. They all on that Sunday stopped what they were doing and began to help in whatever way they could."

While her colleagues at the NTSB voted to pin almost all the responsibility for the crash on the pilots for missing clues they were on the wrong runway, Hersman wrote a concurring opinion that found various other components of the aviation safety system failed the Comair passengers that day.

Some have been corrected, she said, but NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker sent a letter last Friday to the Federal Aviation Administration for slow progress on two others dealing with preflight runway checks. FAA says it has approved the regulations but is waiting for them to be published.

Besides those, Hersman says she would like to see sweeping other changes, including mandated use of "moving map" computer systems in commercial cockpits, which would essentially serve as a GPS system for runway navigation.

She also wants airports of all sizes to redraw the markings on their runways, making the letters and numbers larger and the instructions clearer. Lexington's airport took this step shortly after the crash, even though NTSB largely absolved it of blame.

"You never know what accident you prevented or what lives have been saved by the good work done in the aviation community, whether it's people sitting in jumpseats or airports voluntarily doing markings," Hersman said. "No matter what improvements they make, I know they've come at a very heavy price to the Lexington community."


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